14 Dec 2021 - 16 Dec 2021  |  Philipp Schorch et al.

The museum as archive: Using the past in the present and future

Centre for Research on Colonial Culture (University of Otago)

In a 2016 talk at LMU Munich, French sociologist Bruno Latour laid out the trajectory ‘from the anthropocene to the new climatic regime’. While doing so, he took issue with the concepts of the globe and globalization, and argued that humanity needs to rethink the Earth as living system, or ‘Gaia’, making it central rather than being relegated to the background as ‘Nature’. To achieve this, Latour further argued, knowledge needs to be harvested from across academic disciplines and beyond. When probed about a concrete pathway, he referred to the cosmologies once collected and stored in archival and museum collections, in the name of anthropology, to salvage a past doomed to disappear. This treasure trove should be revisited to reimagine humanity’s multiple potential futures.

This symposium seeks to use this idea to envision the different avenues, epistemologies and ontologies through which the museum as archive was conceptualized in the colonial past, can be rethought in the ‘post-colonial’ present, and might be operated in the decolonial future. The salvage paradigm of the late 19th and early 20th centuries postulated that Indigenous societies were static and would ultimately fade under the pressure of the colonial onslaught. Material culture collected in museums and archives served to chronicle ‘lost’ culture and cement racial and economic inequalities continuing to the present. The acquisition of objects and cultural heritage, however, also involved complex negotiations that in some cases undermined attempts to freeze native and tribal societies. Moreover, the information published in ethnographic monographs, which in many cases synthesizes material otherwise dispersed and fragmented in institutions and disciplinary silos, provides vital data for Indigenous reclamation, revitalization and social development today. What is the relationship between the historical material gathered in collections and contemporary projects of decolonization and Indigenization? What happens when archival and museum collections are used in the present and mobilized towards the future? And what happens if we approach archives, galleries and museums, not only as mechanisms of collecting, ordering and governing, but also as dynamic-contingent processes, heterotopian spaces, and living resources for creative interventions and utopian (re)imaginations? 

The symposium investigates the contemporary transformation of archival and museum collections which is unlocking Pacific perspectives and recreating Pacific futures. We also seek to examine some of the novel strategies employed in current professional practice to transcend the confines of the museum collection/archive. What do initiatives such as post-custodial archiving, co-curating, digitization and crowdsourcing science, or the various forms of Māori and Indigenous museology, offer as potential modalities for museums in the 21st century? Participants are asked to dwell on both the concrete practicalities and embodied dimensions of archival work as well as meta-level reflections, such as the recovery of Indigenous concepts, frameworks and knowledge from archival traces, which such work facilitates. The symposium will be of interest to academics, students, GLAM sector professionals and researchers. 

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